Those of you who read this blog regularly will be familiar with its central thesis: slavery is the only thing that matters when discussing racism, because it allows me to demonize white people. After all, even though slavery ended a thousand years ago, exploiting that part of European/American history (which, when you think about it, wasn’t really all that bad) allows me to make white people feel guilty enough to give me what I want, whether that be reparations or reverse-racism jobs. It’s the reason that I never stop bringing up the Atlantic slave trade, and why all of my posts on the topic of anti-black racism explicitly reference the fact that black people used to be slaves, and therefore white people are evil.
Of course, anyone who’s actually read this blog knows that all of the above statements are complete blinkered bullshit. Slavery is a topic that very rarely makes it into any of my discussions of racism, except when it is relevant to explaining a historical (or, in much rarer cases, contemporary) phenomenon. A quick review of my history reveals that less than 5% of my posts even use the word slavery – that number climbs to 16% if I restrict to only those stories tagged as ‘race’. The fact is that while an honest and comprehensive understanding of slavery is helpful in understanding contemporary race relations, it is most certainly not sufficient.
Which is why I am continually baffled by people who talk about the complicity of African leaders in the trafficking of slaves. One doesn’t have to dig too deeply in the muck of a comments thread before one finds someone protesting that black people weren’t completely innocent, and therefore… I dunno, anti-black racism is their (our) fault too? I sincerely do not understand the purpose that this taking point is meant to serve. Regardless of its uselessness as a counter to anything, it manages to worm its way into the conversation over and over again, like a dandelion of stupidity bursting through the asphalt of sensibility.
First of all, there is pretty much nobody who isn’t already aware of this fact. At least among those who have made any kind of study of the history of slavery. Slavery has existed in various contexts in most human cultures at one point or another during history, as has avarice. It made perfect sense for African kings and chieftains to be complicit in the sale of slaves – after all, they made money and weakened their enemies. Win-win, right? The kind of racial solidarity that makes selling black slaves a betrayal didn’t exist then – African cultures are incredibly varied, and the phrase ‘black people’ didn’t have nearly the same meaning then as it does now. Just as World War I wasn’t white people ‘betraying each other’, selling slaves was not a “black” vs. “white” issue. That context would not exist for generations.
Second, while all slavery is immoral, not all slavery is identical. The history of the European slave trade was the story of an entire civilization being built on an edifice of racism. Europe would not have developed into the economic and political powerhouse it became without being able to mobilize thousands of Africans – people not even seen as fully human – to fill in the manual labour gaps that allowed the kind of rapid technological progress that would result in Europe’s dominance. It is the sheer magnitude of the trade that makes European slavery unique – not the mere fact of its existence. This analysis of course overlooks the extreme cruelty and even greater entrenchment of the American slave trade, which puts it alone among any that the world has ever known.
Third, the “black people had slaves too” argument is only relevant if one is trying to make the case that white people are evil, and black people are entirely innocent. While there certainly are those who make statements like that, they’re treated with the same frequency of raised eyebrows and rolled eyes as Moon Hoaxers and Flood Geologists. Contemporary discussions of racism, of the kind that I try to conduct, tend to focus more on trying to understand why racism exists and how it manifests itself (even without conscious effort) than on trying to lay the blame at the feet of a particular group of people. Responding to “we all have subconscious racial biases” with “but black people had slaves too!” is an utterly incomprehensible red herring.
I hold the same level of disdain for any attempt to deputize the (very real) slavery of white people into an argument about contemporary racism. It is a historical fact that hundreds of thousands of white Europeans were sold as slaves, to say nothing of the many First Nations, South Asians and Pacific Islanders who were similarly exploited. Slavery was not exclusively capture and sale of Africans by Europeans; however, it was that primarily. The difference in the magnitude (and time span) of the enslavement of Europeans versus Africans is staggering – it is nowhere near reasonable to equate the two. A far more compelling argument would be the anti-white racism of white Americans toward those who were not ‘the right kind’ of white – namely Irish, Italian, and Polish immigrants during the late 1800s and early-to-mid 1900s*.
Having ‘the race conversation’ is tough, and I have all the sympathy in the world for white folks who suddenly feel picked on when the truth of history is exposed. However, to respond by rushing towards the nearest quasi-loophole is not the response of a mature person who has been listening to the criticisms. Aside from a small number of kooks, the discussion of racism is not the discussion of how terrible white people are. It is instead an exploration of what ‘whiteness’ means, and how psychological, economic, political, and yes historical factors are tied up in a system that treats race as though it had some meaning that isn’t entirely contrived. Until we learn to have this discussion honestly, without relentlessly attempting to make excuses for why it’s everyone else’s fault, this society built on racism will continue to make slaves of us all.
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*Of course, this comparison is made even more problematic by the fact that “Irish need not apply” had a much shorter lifespan than “Whites only”, and Italians and Poles immigrated voluntarily rather than being kidnapped forcibly for hundreds of years.